The 11th Edition of the prestigious FIFA World Cup tournament hosted and won by Argentina in 1978 will remain one of the most talked about Mundial in the history of football. Apart from the numerous political undertones that characterized the tournament, the winner, runner up and second runner up were all from Pot 1. It was the held in the year Brazilian great Edson Arantes do Nascimento popularly known as Pele retired from the round leather game after winning three world cups in 1958, 1962 and 1970!
Pele will go on to make a bold prediction which has continued to plague him till date. Like a prophet who saw the future, Pele had declared that “an African team would win the world cup before the end of the 20th Century!” Many pundits were surprised by his claims especially since only Tunisia represented the African continent in the 1978 World Cup.
Considering Africa’s progress on the world stage prior to this, the prediction was one that had huge potentials of coming to pass especially as many African teams like Nigeria was adapting the Brazilian dribbling pattern famously referred to as the Ginga.
An African player in George Weah later won the crown of World’s Best Footballer in 1995 – yes, before the end of the 20th Century. But no African team did enough to live up to Pele’s prediction or the huge expectation from the world in general, and sadly so. The major reason why African football deteriorated over time can be attributed to the continent’s gradual abandonment of grassroots development, and the heavy dependence on African players trained abroad to represent the continent in major competitions.
With time, African teams lost their style and the dream! Today, Pele’s prediction has fallen to the ground - void.
Grassroots: The Bedrock of African Football
African football has always been anchored on the grassroots and it is no surprise that the continent continues to excel in age grade and junior competitions. A worthy example is the FIFA U-17 World Cup in which Nigeria is the most successful country in the history of the tournament, winning it a record 5 times since its inception. Africa has its own unique style of play, which distinguishes us as a people; when altered, it is beautiful to watch and difficult to break down by opponents.
The talent has never been an issue as observers, professionals and football pundits all over the world have never hidden their resolve that Africa remains a top destination when it comes to scouting players.
Surprisingly, these players do very well when they travel abroad and play for other countries or clubs. The level is just not the same when they come back home and this is because of the adaptation process which they have gone through.
It is not rocket science to see that the grassroots is the fulcrum of African football, why it still remains underdeveloped and overlooked remains an issue for concern.
On the streets, under the bridges, every available space in our abandoned stadia, school compounds, major roads….you name it; everywhere is a make-shift football field in Africa. Yet, African coaches and scouts depend on Sky Sports to discover talents.
The talents wasting away on the streets can defeat any team currently representing an African country, but the lack of opportunities has continued to put them at bay.
In the past, grassroots competitions between communities and schools were taken seriously and many talents were discovered through this. Clemens Westerhof, Nigeria’s most decorated coach is famous for his penchant for street footballers and it is on record that he assembled Nigeria’s best squad ever to adorn the proud green and white.
Players like the legendary Taribo West, Kanu Nwankwo and a host of others were discovered at a secondary school competition in Owerri, Imo State. They would later become great exports from Africa.
There are millions of Kanu Nwankwo wasting away daily without the right platform and opportunity for them to showcase their talents, and stakeholders continue to do nothing.
What could be done?
There are many over time who continued to beat the drum for stakeholders to revive grassroots football in Africa saying it is the bedrock for any meaningful development for Africa in the sport. While they are correct and on track, the problem, however, is that one seems to offer solutions or ways how it can be done!
To develop African grassroots football, the government must seek Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and create an amicable environment for the private stakeholders to own and manage clubs with which they can make profits. One major problem affecting football in Nigeria is the government’s interference, the majority of the clubs are owned by the government who elect people with zero or very little know-how on how best to manage the sector.
The introduction of PPP will see the introduction of more funds and seasoned professionals who know the problems affecting the sector and how best they can be tackled.
It is not too late for Pele’s prediction to come to pass, Africa can still win the world cup, albeit not now.
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